A woman previously imprisoned at a correctional facility in Canada says she was placed in solitary confinement for refusing to wear a bra. Jeannette Tossounian, now 40, says that when she was incarcerated at the Vanier Centre for Women in Milton three years ago she was told that visible nipples could “arouse the male guards.” Her complaints triggered a change in inmate dress codes across the province.
Tossounian served two years in prison after being convicted of burning down her own art gallery in 2012. Three witnesses reported seeing a woman with a gas can near the fire, according to a Niagra Falls Review report from the time; police said she smelled of gasoline when she was arrested and had a lighter on her person. She was convicted of arson and possession of incendiary materials; she denies the charges and says she is appealing her conviction. Tossounian represented herself at her original trial and didn’t testify.
During her time in prison, she told the Toronto Star prison, she was frequently forced to wear a bra against her will: “I was told that my braless breasts could actually cause chaos.”
In 2013, per the Star, Tossounian staged a hunger strike against the policy, sending her to lockdown:
In October 2013, Tossounian launched a hunger strike after being placed in solitary confinement “over a friggin’ bra” — resisting the “strap-in policy,” she said.
After she spent 10 days in “the hole” with little more than toilet paper and a Bible, Vanier yielded, altering its dress code, she said.
“That violation was a really traumatizing experience, and this will affect me for the rest of my life,” said Tossounian, released in December 2013. “At one point the thought of killing myself went actually through my head.”
The Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services quietly abolished the bra requirement in the spring of 2014; a spokesperson wouldn’t tell the Star whether Tossounian’s protests spurred the change.
Tossounian self-published a book about her experiences in prison; she’s also been calling for reforms to Ottawa’s jail facilities. Besides Vanier, she spent several weeks at the Ottawa-Carleton Detention Centre, which she told the Ottawa Citizen looked more like a desperately ill-equipped homeless shelter than anything, with insufficient heat and severe overcrowding, due to the number of pre-trial detainees who were unable to afford bail.